Creating a Policy Agenda


Natalie Roetzel Ossenfort, , Shyaam Subramanian

Our attorneys for this episode:

Natalie Ossenfort, Jen Powis, Shyaam Subramanian

Show Notes

The tax code permits 501(c)(3) public charities to lobby for policy reform (and defend against bad legislation), but how will your organization go about identifying its policy priorities and advancing them before policymakers? This episode walks through several steps your nonprofit can take to develop its policy agenda. 

  • Step 1: Talk to Your Community 
    • Obtaining feedback from your members and community is a critical first step in developing a policy agenda. 
    • Utilize different approaches to assess the needs of your constituents and the communities your organization represents. For example, you might go door-to-door, hold community meetings, or survey your members and clients via email or text. 
    • Consistency is key. If you haven’t done so already, begin these conversations now. Don’t wait until legislation is being voted on to ask for community opinions. Instead, assess community needs on an ongoing basis. 
  • Step 2: Engage Partners 
    • While every nonprofit can be effective on its own, it is much easier to amplify the voices and needs of your community if you partner with other organizations.  
    • Discussing your policy agenda with other nonprofits can also help when analyzing potential unintended consequences to the policy changes you propose. That is why it is important to reach out to peer organizations (working in the same policy space as your own organization) and to other organizations whose work could be impacted by your policy goals. 
  • Step 3: Educate Legislators and other Policymakers 
    • Policymakers are not always experts on the issues that your organization cares about. 
    • Nonprofit organizations that work closely with their constituents and partners are often experts in their fields, and they can educate legislators and other leaders about the needs being faced by communities and the policy changes that could best address those needs. 
    • Also educate policymakers about how your policy proposal will be financed. By addressing budgetary issues up front, you can present policymakers with reform recommendations that they can easily understand and sell to fellow decisionmakers. 
    • Most importantly, don’t be intimidated. Elected officials represent you, and they value the input of their constituents. 
  • Step 4: Engage in Outreach to Incoming Administrations 
    • Use the interim period before newly elected officials take office to inform them of your community’s needs and influence their policy priorities. 
    • Nonprofits can also make recommendations regarding cabinet appointees and judicial nominees, whose decisions will ultimately impact the lives of nonprofit clients and constituents. 
    • Individuals who are nominated or appointed to key executive branch positions will ultimately be the ones charged with implementing the law. Holding conversations with these incoming leaders and educating them about your organization’s goals is a critical step in the policy agenda-setting process.